Although Indonesia is extremely diverse ethnically (more than 300 distinct ethnic groups are recognized), most Indonesians are linguistically--and culturally--part of a larger Indo-Malaysian world encompassing present-day Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and other parts of insular and mainland Asia. Early inhabitants had an agricultural economy based on cereals, and introduced pottery and stone tools during the period 2500 to 500 B.C. During the period between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500, as the peoples of the archipelago increasingly interacted with South and East Asia, metals and probably domesticated farm animals were introduced. [Source: Library of Congress]

People in Indonesia may have been among the first to develop agriculture. There is some evidence of wild yam and taro cultivation dating back to 15,000 and 10,000 B.C. in Indonesia. The Dongson (Dong Son) culture from Vietnam and southern China made its way to Indonesia around 1000 B.C. It brought irrigated rice growing, bronze casting, ritual buffalo sacrifice and the practice of raising stone megaliths. Remnants of this culture can be found today in central Sulawesi, the Batak areas of Sumatra and parts of Borneo and the islands east of Bali.

Beginning around the 7th century B.C. organized societies began to take shape in different locations in Indonesia. These people practiced irrigated rice farming, used copper and bronze, domesticated pigs and other animals, practiced seafaring and established villages around rice fields. These early Indonesians were animists who believed in an afterlife not so different from their life on earth and were buried with tools and weapons they could use in the next world. [Source: Lonely Planet ++]

The word Java is derived from the Sanskrit word yava, meaning “barely, grain.” The name is very old and appeared in Ptolemy’s Geography in the A.D. 2nd century. The first towns and small kingdoms appeared in Java around the A.D. 1st century. Small kingdoms were ruled by tribal leaders and organized around wet rice cultivation Around this time Indonesia began trading spices, gold and benzoin (an aromatic gum prized in China) with India and China and islands located on the major trade routes between India and China. ++

According to Lonely Planet: “Java’s constant hot temperature, plentiful rainfall and volcanic soil was ideal for wet-field rice cultivation. The organisation this required may explain why the Javanese developed a seemingly more feudal society than the other islands. (Dry-field rice cultivation is much simpler, requiring no elaborate social structure to support it.)

Early Trade in Malaysia and Indonesia

Little is known about Indonesia’s early history, but historians believe that as early as the first few centuries A.D. trade on the Strait of Malacca helped to create economic and cultural links among China, India, and the Middle East. Among the most powerful and enduring early kingdoms was Srivijaya, which ruled much of Indonesia and peninsular Malaysia from the seventh to the fourteenth century with support from China and the Orang Laut (“men of the sea”) who originated from Peninsular Malaysia and were perhaps the region’s best sailors and fighters.

By the A.D. 2nd century. Europeans were familiar with Malaya, and Indian traders had made regular visits in their search for gold, tin and jungle woods. Describing the trade on Malacca Strait, Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD wrote in the Encyclopedia of Islamic History:“Sandwiched between the island of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, the Strait of Malacca is the artery for commerce between China, Japan, India, Arabia and East Africa. In the Middle Ages, these Straits were the hub for trade and commerce just as much as they are today. Riding on the monsoons, ships from as far away as Canton, China visited Malacca from January to May. From July onwards, the monsoons reversed the flow of winds, facilitating the return of ships to India and Sri Lanka. The monsoon patterns in the Arabian Sea similarly allowed ships from Aden and East Africa to trade with Gujrat and the Malabar Coast of India.

“Through the ages, ships have used the coast of this peninsula to dock and transact business. If one were to visit this area around the year 1400, one would find Chinese, Indians, Omanis, Yemenis, Persians and Africans intermingling with traders from Sumatra, Java, Bali and Canton, exchanging goods and establishing trade relations. China exported silk, brocades, porcelain and perfumes. India offered hardwoods, carvings, precious stones, cotton, sugar, livestock and weapons. From the interior of Malaya came tin, camphor, ebony and gold. Sumatra provided rice, gold, black pepper and mace. Java was the source of dyes, spices and perfumes. Cloves were exported from the Malaccas and sandalwood came from Timor. Ceramics from China were a major commodity.

“Muslim merchants dominated international trade in the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the East China Sea. A common religion, impeccable business integrity and universal transaction laws based on the Shariah had enabled the Muslims to establish a trade network linking the coastlines of East Africa, southern Arabia, the Persian Gulf and the Malabar coast with the islands of Indonesia and the southern coast of China. As early as the 8th century, there was a Muslim trading post in Canton. The coastline of Malaya was cosmopolitan wherein merchants from Malabar, Arabia and Africa lived and interacted with the indigenous Malay population and Chinese mandarins.”

Early sultanates were called “harbor principalities. Some became rich from controlling the trade of certain products or serving as way station on trade routes. The Malay Peninsula was known to ancient Tamils as Suvarnadvipa or the "Golden Peninsula". It was shown on Ptolemy's map as the "Golden Khersonese". He referred to the Straits of Malacca as Sinus Sabaricus. Trade relations with China and India were established in the 1st century BC. [Source: Wikipedia]

Earliest Historical Records of Indonesia

Although some Indonesian peoples probably began writing on perishable materials at an earlier date, the first stone inscriptions (in Sanskrit using an early Pallava script from southern India) date from the end of the fourth century AD (in the eastern Kalimantan locale of Kutai) and from the early or mid- fifth century AD (in the western Java polity known as Taruma). These inscriptions offer a glimpse of leaders newly envisioning themselves not as mere chiefs ( datu) but as kings or overlords ( raja, maharaja), taking Indic names and employing first Brahmanical Hindu, then Buddhist, concepts and rituals to invent new traditions justifying their rule over newly conceived social and political hierarchies. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In addition, Chinese records from about the same time provide scattered, although not always reliable, information about a number of other “kingdoms” on Sumatra, Java, southwestern Kalimantan, and southern Sulawesi, which, in the expanding trade opportunities of the early fifth century, had begun to compete with each other for advantage, but we know little else about them. Historians have commonly understood these very limited data to indicate the beginnings of the formation of “states,” and later “empires” in the archipelago, but use of such terms is problematic.*

We understand that small and loosely organized communities consolidated and expanded their reach, some a great deal more successfully than others, but even in the best-known cases we do not have sufficient specific knowledge of how these entities actually worked to compare them confidently with, for example, the states and empires of the Mediterranean region during the same period or earlier. More generalized terms, such as “polities” or “hegemonies,” are suggestive of social and political models that are more applicable. *

Recorded accounts of Sumatra date back to the period of trade by Baghdad merchants with India and China, by way of Southeast Asia. Suleyman (851) first wrote about Nias island and described it “to contain an abundance of gold. The inhabitants live off the fruit of the coconut tree, from which they make palm wine, and cover their bodies with coconut oil. When someone wants to get married, he must bring the head of an enemy. If he has killed two enemies, he may take two wives. If he has killed fifty enemies, he may take fifty wives.” Other early accounts of Nias Island include: The Book of Indian Wonders ( Kitab adaib al-Hind), dated by Van der Lith to the year 950; the writings of the famous geographer Edrisi (1154); a description of cannibals inhabiting the island by Kazwini (1203–1283); accounts by Rasid Ad-Din (1310); and descriptions of a large island city by Ibn Al-Wardi (1340). [Source: Viaro, Mario Alain, “Ceremonial Sabres of Nias Headhunters in Indonesia” , Arts et cultures. 2001, vol. 3, p. 150-171]

Arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism in Indonesia

In ancient times most people who lived in what is now Indonesia most likely practiced some form of animism (belief in spirits) and ancestor worship. Perhaps, as is true some Indonesian animists today, many of their beliefs were tied to making sure that ancestors rest in peace, harvests were good and people had enough to eat and maintained good health. Animists remain in West Papua and Sumba.

Buddhism and Hinduism arrived in the A.D. 3rd and 4th centuries presumably as traders from India and other places arrived on Indonesian islands and brought their religions with them. There are numerous Buddhist and Hindu sites in Indonesia. The oldest Hindu art in Indonesia are Hindu statues found in Sumatra and Sulawesi dated to the A.D. 3rd century. Hindu Sanskrit inscriptions dated to the A.D. 5th century have been found in West Java and eastern Kalimantan. Early Indonesian rulers were regarded as incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu. Some scholars believe that early Indonesian kings invited Hindu priests from India to provide them with mystical powers and a spiritual justification for their rule.

Buddhism was introduced to Java by the A.D. fifth century and established in Sumatra in the 7th century. It took hold to a lesser extent in Malaysia and Borneo and remained strong until the massive conversion to Islam in the 15th century. Buddhism existed peacefully with Hinduism and indigenous magical beliefs. Buddhism grew from Hindusim in India. In Indonesia the two religions have often been interwoven with each other and with traditional Javanese beliefs. Hindu statues sometimes have Buddhist symbols and Buddhist temples often have depictions of Hindu gods.

Buddhism and Hinduism were embraced by Indonesian royalty and, some speculate, they were used to justify the rule of Indonesian leaders with the god-king beliefs. Many believe they were practiced by royals and elite while ordinary people kept their traditional religion. Many events in the great Hindu epic the Ramayana take place in Java.

Before Islam became dominate, Indonesia was ruled by a succession of Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms for over a thousand years. The first Hindu kingdom—Melayu—was established on Java in A.D. 400. Indian influence between the 8th and 14th century produced a number of small Shaivite-Buddhist kingdoms. In the 7th century the Buddhist Sriwijaya Empire ruled Western Indonesia and controlled trade in much of the area. In the 9th century the Hindu Mataram Kingdom ceded control to the Buddhist Sailendra Kingdom. The effect of India on Indonesia was quite profound but greatly modified. When the great Indian poet Rabindranth Tagore visited Java he said, “I see India everywhere but I do not recognize it.”

Spread of Indian Civilization

During the early centuries A.D., elements of Indian civilization, especially Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism, were brought to Sumatra and Java and stimulated the emergence of centralized states and highly organized societies. Scholars disagree on how this cultural transfer took place and who was involved. Apparently, traders and shippers, not just Indian but Indonesian as well, were primarily responsible. Small indigenous states existed in the coastal regions of western Indonesia at a time when Indian Ocean trade was flourishing. [Source: Library of Congress *

But, unlike the Islamic culture that was to come to Indonesia nearly 1,000 years later, India in the first centuries A.D. was divided into a rigid caste hierarchy that would have denied many features of Indian tradition to relatively low-caste merchants and sailors. Historians have argued that the principal agents in Indianization were priests who were retained by indigenous rulers for the purpose of enhancing their power and prestige. Their role was largely, although not exclusively, ideological. In Hindu and Buddhist thought, the ruler occupied an exalted position as either the incarnation of a god or a bodhisattva (future Buddha). This position was in marked contrast to the indigenous view of the local chief as merely a "first among equals." Elaborate, Indian-style ceremonies confirmed the ruler's exalted status. Writing in Sanskrit brought literacy to the courts and with it an extensive literature on scientific, artistic, political, and religious subjects. *

Some writers are skeptical about the role of priests because high-caste Brahmins would have been prohibited by Brahmanic codes from crossing the polluting waters of the ocean to the archipelago. Some must have gone, however, probably at the invitation of Southeast Asian courts, leading to the hypothesis that Hinduism may indeed have been a proselytizing religion. In the early nineteenth century, the British faced mutinies by their high-caste Indian troops who refused to board ships to fight a war in Burma. Perhaps such restrictions were less rigid in earlier times, or the major role in cultural diffusion was played by Buddhists, who would not have had such inhibitions. *

Although the culture of India, largely embodied in insular Southeast Asia with the Sanskrit language and the Hindu and Buddhist religions, was eagerly grasped by the elite of the existing society, typically Indian concepts, such as caste and the inferior status of women, appear to have made little or no headway against existing Indonesian traditions. Nowhere was Indian civilization accepted without change; rather, the more elaborate Indian religious forms and linguistic terminology were used to refine and clothe indigenous concepts. In Java even these external forms of Indian origin were transformed into distinctively Indonesian shapes. The tradition of plays using Javanese shadow puppets (wayang), the origins of which may date to the neolithic age, was brought to a new level of sophistication in portraying complex Hindu dramas (lakon) during the period of Indianization. Even later Islam which forsakes pictorial representations of human brings, brought new developments to the wayang tradition through numerous refinements in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.*

Indianized Empires in Indonesia

Although historical records and archaeological evidence are scarce, it appears that by the seventh century A.D., the Indianized kingdom of Srivijaya, centered in the Palembang area of eastern Sumatra, established suzerainty over large areas of Sumatra, western Java, and much of the Malay Peninsula. Dominating the Malacca and Sunda straits, Srivijaya controlled the trade of the region and remained a formidable sea power until the thirteenth century. Serving as an entrepôt for Chinese, Indonesian, and Indian markets, the port of Palembang, accessible from the coast by way of a river, accumulated great wealth. A stronghold of Mahayana Buddhism, Srivijaya attracted pilgrims and scholars from other parts of Asia. These included the Chinese monk Yijing, who made several lengthy visits to Sumatra on his way to India in 671 and 695, and the eleventh-century Buddhist scholar Atisha, who played a major role in the development of Tibetan Buddhism. [Source: Library of Congress *]

During the early eighth century, the state of Mataram controlled Central Java, but apparently was soon subsumed under the Buddhist Sailendra kingdom. The Sailendra built the Borobudur temple complex, located northwest of Yogyakarta. The Borobudur is a huge stupa surmounting nine stone terraces into which a large number of Buddha images and stone bas-reliefs have been set. Considered one of the great monuments of world religious art, it was designed to be a place of pilgrimage and meditation. The basreliefs illustrate Buddhist ideas of karma and enlightenment but also give a vivid idea of what everyday life was like in eighthcentury Indonesia. Energetic builders, the Sailendra also erected candi, memorial structures in a temple form of original design, on the Kedu Plain near Yogyakarta. *

The late ninth century witnessed the emergence of a second state that is noted for building a Hindu temple complex, the Prambanan, which is located east of Yogyakarta and was dedicated to Durga, the Hindu Divine Mother, consort of Shiva, the god of destruction. From the tenth to the fifteenth centuries, powerful Hindu-Javanese states rivalling Srivijaya emerged in the eastern part of the island. The kingdom of Kediri, established in eastern Java in 1049, collected spices from tributaries located in southern Kalimantan and the Maluku Islands, famed in the West as the Spice Islands or Moluccas. Indian and Southeast Asian merchants among others then transported the spices to Mediterranean markets by way of the Indian Ocean. *

The golden age of Javanese Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms was in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Although the eastern Javanese monarch Kertanagara (reigned 1268-92) was killed in the wake of an invasion ordered by the Mongol emperor Khubilai Khan, his son-in-law, Prince Vijaya, established a new dynasty with its capital at Majapahit and succeeded in getting the hard-pressed Mongols to withdraw. The new state, whose expansion is described in the lengthy fourteenth-century Javanese poem Nagarakrtagama by Prapanca, cultivated both Shivaite Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism. It established an empire that spread throughout much of the territory of modern Indonesia. * The empire building was accomplished not by the king but by his prime minister, Gajah Mada, who was virtual ruler from 1330 to his death in 1364. Possibly for as long as a generation, many of the Indonesian islands and part of the Malay Peninsula were drawn into a subordinate relationship with Majapahit in the sense that it commanded tribute from local chiefs rather than governing them directly. Some Indonesian historians have considered Gajah Mada as the country's first real nation-builder. It is significant that Gadjah Mada University (using the Dutch-era spelling of Gajah Mada's name), established by the revolutionary Republic of Indonesia at Yogyakarta in 1946, was--and remains--named after him. *

By the late fourteenth century, Majapahit's power ebbed. A succession crisis broke out in the mid-fifteenth century, and Majapahit's disintegration was hastened by the economic competition of the Malay trading network that focused on the state of Melaka (Malacca), whose rulers had adopted Islam. Although the Majapahit royal family stabilized itself in 1486, warfare broke out with the Muslim state of Demak and the dynasty, then ruling only a portion of eastern Java, ended in the 1520s or 1530s. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Republic of Indonesia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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